Toxic Bodies explores environmental histories of hormone disruptors--the industrial pollutants that mimic hormones and disrupt the endocrine systems that influence reproduction and development in wildlife as well as people. Synthetic chemicals have transformed our industrial world since World War II, and now they appear to have the potential to transform reproductive development as well.
The central historical case study in this book focuses on diethylstilbestrol (DES), the first synthetic chemical to be marketed as an estrogen and one of the first identified as an endocrine disruptor. Beginning in the 1940s, millions of women were prescribed DES by their doctors, first to treat the symptoms of menopause and then to reduce the risk of miscarriage. Although no evidence ever showed that DES actually did reduce the risk of miscarriage, at the height of its popularity in the 1950s, between 2 to 5 million pregnant women took the drug, exposing their daughters as well as themselves to higher rates of reproductive cancers, birth defects, and infertility.
Even before the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug in 1941, researchers knew that DES caused cancer and problems with sexual development in laboratory animals. Yet the FDA still approved it. Examining the history of DES can help us understand how our current problems with endocrine disruptors have developed.
DES has become an environmental issue as well as a personal health issue. By the 1950s, livestock were implanted with DES to promote rapid weight gain, which enabled the development of an industrialized feedlot system. The metabolic byproducts of DES—wastes with potent estrogenic activity--from feedlots and from people made their way into broader ecosystems, exposing a wide range of wildlife to the hormone. DES changed the internal ecosystems of human, livestock, and wildlife bodies, interconnecting our bodies with our environments in increasingly troubling ways.
In the past decade, hundreds of experimental studies have shown that endocrine disruptors can lead to reproductive problems in laboratory animals and wildlife, while epidemiological studies have found correlations between human exposure to industrial chemicals and reproductive problems in humans. Yet the federal government has essentially failed to regulate most endocrine disruptors, arguing that because scientists have not proven low-level exposure is the cause of reproductive problems in humans, too much scientific uncertainty remains for regulators to act.
Environmentalists counter that, even in the absence of certainty, precaution should guide the regulation of toxic chemicals. The precautionary principle states that if an action might cause severe or irreversible harm to complex, unpredictable systems, the burden of proof should be on the industry to show safety, rather than on affected communities to show harm. Industry advocates argue, on the other hand, that application of the precautionary principle would put an end to innovation and potentially life-saving advances.
The concept of precaution came into widespread environmental use in the 1990s, yet industries, regulators, and citizens have been debating similar principles in public health since the nineteenth century. The historical case study of DES offers a valuable examination of the ways precaution can and cannot help us devise environmental policy. Even before the Food and Drug Administration approved DES in 1941, researchers knew that DES caused cancer and problems with sexual development in laboratory animals. These concerns initially led FDA Commissioner Walter Campbell to reject the drug, arguing that regulators must follow what he called the "conservative principle." FDA regulators essentially adopted the precautionary principle sixty years before that term came into common usage. Yet by 1947, the FDA had abandoned its position of precaution, telling critics of DES that it was up to them to prove that DES had caused harm, rather than up to the drug companies to show that DES was safe.
Throughout the book, I argue that a constellation of political, scientific, and conceptual factors have repeatedly led to a retreat from the precautionary principle, with DES and with other synthetic chemicals. As early as the 1940s, that retreat was at the heart of the DES tragedy—and today it remains important for understanding the roots of our current problems with endocrine disruptors.
Toxic Bodies examines the landscape of exposure which begins in our own bodies, and connects us inward and outward, across generations, across ecosystems, and across species. Failures of regulation are expressed not just in hearings and court cases, but also inside our own bodies. One goal of this book is to explore how we persuaded ourselves after World War II that releasing tens of thousands of untested chemicals-- with hormonal and toxic effects known at the time--made sense. What assumptions about scientific expertise and technological control over nature drove this faith in better living through chemistry? How did we come to accept the increasing chemical saturation of our bodies and our environments? How have cultural constructions of sex and gender shaped responses to endocrine disruptors? And finally, what can we learn from chemical histories to help us address current disputes over the risks of exposure to other endocrine disrupting chemicals?
Yale University Press has generously made the "Preface" and "Chapter 9: Precaution and the Lessons of History" available here for preview.
Solutions Journal has recently published my article on using the lessons of history to make better chemical policy: "Protecting Our Bodies from Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals: A Precautionary Tale_."